The state of infrastructure

Is existing infrastructure in good shape? [Yes or No]

Should existing infrastructure be in good shape? [Yes or No]

The answers to these questions should dictate an answer to the question of whether infrastructure requires more funding.

The first question is empirical (depending on what standard you apply to "good shape"). E.g., there are an empirical way to assess road quality, one is the roughness index (assessed by running a vehicle with a trailing wheel, the cumulative vertical movement of the trailing wheel per unit distance is a measure of roughness). Clearly some roads are smoother than others. New roads tend to be smoother than older roads. Roads before snow plowing are smoother than roads after snow plowing.

You may believe infrastructure is in good shape, or you may not.

The second question is normative, should infrastructure be in good shape (relative to its existing state). I have seen advocates for non-auto modes of transportation argues that the worse roads are, the more people will switch modes. I have also seen neighborhood activists argue against smooth roads as a way of discouraging traffic (a natural form of traffic calming). Underfunding of buses has been used to support rail transit. Most advocates do not argue this, but there are people who do.

So combining the answers to these two questions we have the following, (with the natural policy prescription regarding funding in parentheses, assuming money is required to maintain or rebuild infrastructure)

(1) Infrastructure is in good shape and should be in good shape (do nothing different)

(2) Infrastructure is in good shape and should be in bad shape (cut funding)

(3) Infrastructure is in bad shape and should be in good shape (raise funding)

(4) Infrastructure is in bad shape and should be in bad shape (do nothing or cut funding).

Given that the number of people who actually believe infrastructure should be in bad shape is small, the main debate is between (1) and (3). Given not many people would say infrastructure is in good shape in most urban areas,(ASCE rates roads a D-, tied for the lowest of all infrastructure, though any reports cards like this are suspect) raising funds for infrastructure, should be as they say, a no-brainer.

So what is the problem?

People do not believe the money will be well-spent or they believe infrastructure will heal itself. I believe we should look into technologies that can do the latter (self-annealing roads would be great), but the more fundamental problem is the lack of confidence about spending.

This distrust is general, but especially emerges when decisions are politicized. Bridges to Nowhere, while a small-part of actual transportation funding, garner most of the attention. Pothole fillers not doing their job get media, those actually filling potholes do not. Because these are public sector investments, they get much more attention than private sector utilities. I am sure some telco employee has loafed at some point in their career, without making the news.

This leads me to the conclusion, the problem with raising funds is the public and political nature of transportation funding (which prior to the latest downturn, I used to call the last bastion of socialism in the US).

Can transportation funding be isolated and depoliticized, like a public utility, where users pay charges that are dedicated (and more importantly are believed to be dedicated) to provide services for the users? Every month, households get a natural gas bill, a water bill, an electric bill, a cable bill, a phone bill. Households may grumble, but they pay the bill. Rates go up periodically as needed, with public oversight for most of these utilities. Where is the road bill?

We have federal and state highway trust funds, supported largely by a tax on gasoline, while local funds tend to come from general revenue sources, all of which no-one in the public understands. But we still have political intervention in decision-making that is highly visible, usually unproductive, biased toward new capital expenditures rather than operations and maintenance, and generally confidence-destroying.

Major facilities still need oversight, just as high-voltage lines or any other infrastructure. But these should be professional decision determined by organizational mission rather than political decisions to help ensure re-election by bringing home bacon.

An independent transportation infrastructure utility (and a separate independent transit services utility) which is governed independently from the legislative and executive branches is needed to enable us to achieve new funds for old infrastructure.

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on July 11, 2010 5:18 PM.

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